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Traditional dolls in Japan are known by the name of 'ningyō', which means 'human figure' in Japanese. Some experts see a continuity in the making Dolls of human images by the ancient Jōmon culture in Japan (8000-200 B.C.E.) and in the Haniwa funerary Dolls of the subsequent Kofun culture. Expert Alan Pate notes that temple records refer to the making of a grass dolls to be blessed and thrown into the river at Ise Shrine in 3 B.C.; the custom was probably even more ancient, but it is at the root of the modern Doll Festival or Hina Matsuri.

There are various types of Japanese dolls, some representing children and babies, some the imperial court, warriors and heroes, fairy-tale characters, gods and (rarely) demons, and also people of the daily life of Japanese cities. Many were traditional dolls made for household shrines, for formal gift-giving, or for festival celebrations such as Hina Matsuri, (March 3, the Doll Festival or Girls' Day) or Tango no Sekko or Kodomo no hi (May 5, Boys' Day or Children's Day). Some dolls were manufactured as a local craft, to be purchased by pilgrims as a souvenir of a temple visit or some other trip.

Around the year 1000, several types of dolls had already been defined, as we know from Lady Murasaki's great novel The Tale of Genji. Girls played with dolls and doll houses; women made protective dolls for their children or grandchildren; dolls were used in religious ceremonies, taking on the sins of a person whom they had touched. Probably the first professional dollmakers were temple sculptors, who used their skill to make painted wooden images of children Saga dolls. The possibilities of this art form, using carved wood or wood composition, a shining white "skin" lacquer called gofun made from ground oystershell and glue, and beautiful textiles, were vast. Important figures of this kind included very large images of legendary heroes, often with mechanical action built in, which topped festival carts brought out and hauled through town for a civic festival such as Kyoto's Gion Matsuri; mechanical theatrical scenes, which were a popular form of entertainment; and Bunraku puppets, a theatrical form which rivalled and inspired the Kabuki theater, and survives today.

In the Edo period (about 1603-1867), when Japan was closed to most trade, there developed both fine doll makers and a market of wealthy individuals who would pay for the most beautiful dolls set for display in their homes or as valuable gifts. Sets of dolls came to include larger and more elaborate figures, and more of them. The competitive trade was eventually regulated by government, meaning that doll makers could be arrested or banished for breaking laws on materials and height.

Karakuri puppets or dolls are mechanical; they include the large figures on festival floats and smaller entertaining scenes, often with a musical element accompanying the movement.

Gosho dolls show fat, cute babies in a simplified form. The basic gosho is an almost-naked sitting boy, carved all in one piece, with very white skin, though gosho with elaborate clothing, hairstyle, and accessories, female as well as male, became popular as well. They developed as a gifts associated with the Imperial court, and "gosho" could be translated "palace" or "court."

Hina dolls are the dolls for Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, also known as Momo no Sekku or the Peach Festival. They can be made of many materials but the classic hina doll has a pyramidal body of elaborate, many-layered textiles stuffed with straw and/or wood blocks, carved wood hands ,and in some cases feet covered with gofun, and a head of carved wood or molded wood compo covered with gofun, with set-in glass eyes (though before about 1850 the eyes were carved into the gofun and painted) and human or silk hair. A full set comprises at least 15 dolls, representing specific characters, with many accessories (dogu), though the basic set is a male-female pair, often referred to as the Emperor and Empress.